William Dudley Pelley and the Silver Legion of America
"Christ or Chaos!" Two thousand copies of the Chief's new handbill were going out to Centralia, Washington from Asheville headquarters.
"Can't hardly fill all these West Coast orders fast enough." Harry Martin's remark wasn't a complaint. As business manager for Foundation Fellowship Publishers, any comment Harry made about the boxes and boxes of Christian Party campaign literature being shipped each week came with a smile.
It was 1936. Silvershirt Chief William Dudley Pelley had been busy promoting his candidacy for President since the previous August. "For Christ and Constitution!"
In five years World War II would usher in the social circumstances Pelley's adversaries needed to indict him under the Wartime Sedition Act.
Why was Pelley imprisoned? Was he a visionary or just delusionary? When you come to know the man and his mission you might begin to understand why red-tinged journalists honored him with the title "The Most Dangerous Man in America."
On March 12, 1890 William Dudley Pelley was born in the boot factory town of Lynn, Massachusetts. He grew up in the central part of the state where his father held pastorates at several small Methodist churches. He was forced to drop out of high school to work in his father's tissue factory at Fulton, New York. As he reached maturity he married and went into newspaper work, which led him to Vermont. By 1915 Pelley was selling short stories here and there to national magazines. Eventually his work appeared in most of the major publications of the time including The Saturday Evening Post, Redbook, Collier's, and The American.
In 1918 Pelley was approached by representatives of the Methodist Centenary movement to travel to Japan and the Orient and report on foreign missions. While in Japan, wartime conditions interfered with his travel plans. Instead of waiting out the war, Pelley joined the Y.M.C.A. as a canteen scout to Siberia. The next three months would have a tremendous impact on Pelley's political vision. Once in Russia, Pelley boarded a converted freight car and set out along the Trans-Siberian Railway. Soon Pelley realized that the anti-Bolshevik forces he traveled with blamed the blood glut on the same international racial group. Jews! Avoid such talk he could not. It was everywhere; the Americans, the Czechs, the Brits, the Japs, and the Russians. They had all turned into anti-Semites. Pelley said that a well-educated Czech General sat down with him and explained the how and why of the "Jewish Question." The words of that officer would find fervent expression 15 years later. But in October of 1918 the horrors of a war against Christianity were being etched into the mind of Bill Pelley. He saw the sky above Blagoveshchensk aglow with fires set by the Bolsheviks. He saw the weeping mother with her husband and seven children asleep around her, all crowded into the Irkutsk station with 200 other starving refugees. He saw, and smelled, the corpses of innocent men, women and children whose only offense was standing in the way of Jewish Communism.
On his return trip to America early in 1919, Pelley wrote his first novel, The Greater Glory. The account of day-to-day struggles among residents of fictional Paris, VT cut the pattern for three more such books; The Fog, Drag, and Golden Rubbish. After two more years of newspaper and magazine writing, Pelley sold his story "White Faith" to a New York movie producer. During the making of the film Pelley became friends with Lon Chaney, who encouraged him to go to Hollywood.
By 1923 Pelley had offices in New York and Hollywood and continued to provide scenarios for films in addition to numerous magazine submissions. Over the next five years he took part in various business ventures and became friends with most of the famous screen stars of the silent era. He also, however, grew sick of the materialism and spiritual decadence he witnessed. He got tired of the Jews.
Toward the end of 1927 Pelley relieved himself of what business burdens he could and withdrew to a comfortable cottage in Altadena. The next six months brought relief from the fatigue that had been building since his schooldays.
Pelley continued to write and as May of 1928 drew to a close he found himself deep in a manuscript entitled "The Urge of Peoples." The night of the 29th Pelley lay awake reading in bed. As he laid the book aside and turned out the light, he began to ponder the question which he had asked himself over and over while working on "Urge of Peoples."
"What are races?" Pelley had always been interested in ethnology and the history of the Aryans, but what was at the root of all racial origins? He thought himself to sleep.
In the middle of the night Pelley felt a shock and became conscious. He thought the end had come. He was dying! He knew he was lying in that Altadena bungalow, but he felt himself falling through a depth of cool blue light. Suddenly he was caught by human hands beneath his knees and shoulders!
Thoroughly disoriented, he was carefully placed on a stone bench. Slowly he opened his eyes. He was lying in a marble patio in the company of two men dressed in white uniforms much like hospital orderlies. Pelley came to the startling realization that one of the men was his former friend and editor Bert Boyden. Boyden had been dead for several years. Over the course of the next few hours Pelley would meet and chat with many acquaintances whom he had last seen "as cold as wax in their caskets." It was during such a conversation with Boyden that his departed friend brought up the question about the races of man.
"They're classifications of humanity epitomizing gradations of spiritual development, starting with the black man and proceeding upward in cycles to the white," Boyden said. Pelley knew that Boyden's statement suggested reincarnation. That tenet of repeated existence which seemed so far from Pelley's mind before that night would become the basis of much of the information he would circulate in the years that followed.
With morning he found himself back in the bungalow bedroom. The experience had made such a powerful impression on him that he sought to confirm its validity among some of his New York associates who were involved with the American Society for Psychical Research. In the weeks that followed, Pelley found that ideas were coming to his mind as if spoken by the departed friends he had recently encountered.
His acquaintances in New York not only assured him that he hadn't lost his mind, but encouraged him to write an account of his odyssey for the vastly popular American Magazine.
After much goading, Pelley prepared "Seven Minutes in Eternity" for the March, 1929 issue. The article attracted letters from nearly 30,000 readers. In many of the letters people from throughout the country related similar experiences. Others said that the story had inspired them and suggested that Mr. Pelley write more along these lines.
Out of these responses was born the Liberation movement. The messages Pelley was receiving from these "discarnate intelligences" were becoming more profound. In the years that followed, Pelley's "mentors" would communicate to him through clairaudience "a million and a half words of supernal wisdom." By 1930 Pelley was distributing copies of the earliest of these messages to the nearly 500 weekly study groups of the League for the Liberation. In May the first issue of The New Liberator, named after William Lloyd Garrison's abolitionist newspaper, appeared.
From the beginning Pelley's new magazine dealt critically with what he called the "dark forces" at work behind communism. With offices in New York and Washington, D.C., Pelley chartered the Foundation for Christian Economics about this time, which issued a series of bulletins containing thinly veiled indictments of Jews. This Foundation was the earliest platform for what would become known as the Christian or Cooperative Commonwealth envisioned for the United States. The Commonwealth system was most notably expounded in Pelley's 1933 book No More Hunger, cited by some as the most widely read work among American patriots of the Roosevelt era.
By 1932 most of Pelley's national magazine work was a thing of the past. He had sacrificed a lucrative career in pursuit of "voices in his head." He realized that the positive application of the information he was publishing was not limited to a certain group of people with interests in the occult. Pelley felt that his work must find an outlet which would make it accessible to the average man and woman without undue emphasis on its mystical origins.
Very shortly after returning to New York after his "Seven Minutes" experience, Pelley had received a prophetic message concerning several future events. The first was the Stock Market Crash of 1929, which plunged the nation into the Great Depression. The coming of 1933 found Pelley watching for the signal of another of the events foretold on that evening.
"In three years or thereabout, you will find yourself at the head of a national vigilante organization, a quasi-military force" the voice said.
The prophetic timeline which Pelley watched most anxiously was developed by David Davidson in his book The Great Pyramid; Its Divine Message. Prophecies based on the dimensions of the Great Pyramid of Gizah had been popular in England since the middle part of the nineteenth century. Curiously, Pyramid prophecy and the British-Israel Movement shared a number of authors. In fact, Davidson's co-author Herbert Aldersmith wrote British-Israel Truth, which also came out of the Covenant Publishing Company, London. Some of the most popular books on Pyramid prophecy contained anti-Semitic passages. For instance, Piazzi Smyth wrote in Our Inheritance in the Great Pyramid that "the Jews, become the financiers of the world, will be found probably even with the very final Anti-Christ among them." Such similarities coupled with Pelley's interest in ethnology would seem to suggest that he was at least familiar with British-Israel, predecessor of Christian Identity.
One of Davidson's "pyramid dates" was January 31, 1933. During 1932 Pelley had relocated most of his operations to Asheville, North Carolina. His first major operation in Asheville had been to establish the Galahad College. The institution offered lectures on a variety of subjects ranging from metaphysics to economics. After a summer term Pelley realized that the Depression was making it impossible for many would-be students to attend. The lectures began to go out as correspondence courses.
Pelley was in his office at the Galahad College at the end of January when the signal came. He picked the evening paper up from his desk and read the headline. "Hitler Declared Chancellor of Germany!"
"Tomorrow we have the Silvershirts," Pelley said.
Thus the Silver Legion of America was spoken into existence. Pelley had been receiving inspirational messages from a source which he identified as the Elder Brother, Jesus Christ.
"I suffer that we may have Love, Light, Loyalty and Liberation.
Create an `L' to be always in mind as a reminder of the truth," the Elder Brother was reported to have said. For that reason the silver shirt bore a red 'L' on the left breast.
The light gray may have been symbolic of the faint glow which penetrates the darkness just before dawn. When Pelley announced the Legion in the next issue of Liberation, since changed from the New Liberator, his poetic introduction was built around this type of symbolism.
Pelley denied that he had stolen the "shirt" idea from either Hitler or Mussolini. In the late 1760s a vigilante organization called the Regulators had been active in North Carolina. Pelley said that Regulators had been known locally as Red Shirts and that Garibaldi took the idea from these early American patriots.
A campaign hat, navy blue tie and trousers, and puttees completed the uniform, which looked much like the U.S. Army of the time except for color.
"There has long been under cover a Christian Militia that can now come into the open and challenge the arrogance of those who have bethought themselves and their public debaucheries invincible," Pelley said. "It is not religious, it is not political, it is not economic. It is Spiritual, it is Civic, it is Industrial."
The aims of the Silver Legion were no secret. Through his contacts in Washington, D.C. Pelley accumulated inside information on the Communist interests operating behind Roosevelt's New Deal. Equipped with this information the Silvershirts acted as a watch group. Elected officials who had previously engaged in shady dealings without challenge were suddenly being exposed.
The Silvershirts were harshly critical of the National Recovery Administration (NRA) from its inception in 1933 until it was declared unconstitutional in 1935. The element of the American system which drew the most fire from the Legion was predatory capitalism. Pelley said that capitalism and the international banking scheme which operated alongside it had wrecked the dreams of America's founding fathers. As Chief of the Silvershirts, Pelley was a great admirer of John Marshall and Constitutionalism. Pelley drew much influence from the writings of Edward Bellamy when he prepared his Commonwealth plan. His critics accused him of being a Nazi and a fascist, but Pelley claimed that the only thing Silvershirts shared with European anti-Semites was a common greed-driven enemy.
The Legion's early months brought much negative publicity from the national media. With all the attention came recruits by the thousands. By 1934 there were approximately 15,000 Silvershirts and another 25,000 supporters, half of them women, attending Post and Chapel meetings across the country. Silvershirt meetings in Los Angeles often attracted more than 500 people. A number of wealthy and influential men and women openly supported Pelley's work. Henry Ford is said to have given financial support to the Silvershirts and Walt Disney attended Los Angeles Silvershirt gatherings. Congressmen Thorkelson and McFadden wrote and spoke for Legion audiences.
Once it became apparent to the Jews and Pelley's other opponents that he was making headway, they sent investigators to find some legal grounds on which to shut Pelley down. In May of 1934 the authorities brought charges against Pelley under North Carolina's Blue Sky Law for advertising unregistered stock in a publication published and sold in the state. The charge, based on a harmless technicality, was enough to keep Pelley and his staff occupied and burdened with legal fees for several months. The Galahad Press declared bankruptcy and Liberation was discontinued for a time. Pelley was eventually fined and released, but not before his property was seized and the further damage to his reputation done. Division within the ranks of California Silvershirts during 1934 gave rise to a west coast splinter organization which gained notoriety when Marines reported that they had been asked to obtain guns and ammunition for the group.
When the first issue of Pelley's Weekly came out in August of 1934, its editors knew they were facing terrible odds. The columns of the new paper continued to present unflattering facts about Roosevelt's "Jew Deal" and the "Russocrats" promoting it. More talk of a political party appeared as time wore on. It was Pelley's thinking that, even though victory in the next Presidential election was impossible, a Christian Party should be established for Silvershirts so that Americans would see that Pelley and his followers held no designs on violent overthrow of the government. Before the announcement of the Christian Party charter in August of 1935, Pelley started writing about another pyramid date, September 16, 1936. Pelley and his campaign committee looked forward to that date as if with its arrival their cause would somehow miraculously triumph. The election came and went, along with September 16, and no such miracle materialized.
Pelley and his vice-Presidential candidate Willard W. Kemp were kept off every state ballot except Washington, where they received 1,600 votes.
The Christian Party campaign was supported through several significant Silvershirt programs. The Councils of Safety were developed as living room study and discussion groups. Each Council was made up of nine members. Each member was encouraged to establish their own Council, this process continuing as long as new attendees could be found. Safety Council attendance was not limited to Silvershirts and Pelley encouraged group leaders to use the meetings to introduce outsiders to Christian Party objectives. Weekly addresses on a variety of topics were mailed from Asheville every week for reading before the Councils.
Pelley found his largest following on the west coast. When the Christian Party campaign got underway Chief Pelley went to California. In early June of 1936 he began a series of public appearances across the state. On July 15 the Silver Cavalcade started from San Diego with about 30 men and reached Spokane, Washington on August 19 with close to 50 men. Pelley made 17 speeches along the way.
After the election Pelley continued his North Carolina publishing and the federal opposition became hotter than ever. By 1940 Pelley and his organization had been investigated by every nameable agency in Washington, D.C. Pelley claimed that a number of investigative operations such as the House Committee on Un-American Activities had been formed in direct response to the Silvershirts. With such governmental investigations in action, Pelley was obliged to disband the Silver Legion so that the committees could turn their attention to the radicals and communists he had been fighting for seven years.
In December of 1940 Pelley moved his publishing house to Noblesville, Indiana. The next month Liberation was replaced by Roll Call. Pelley was a noisy opponent of American involvement in the current fighting and when the country joined the war in December of 1941 he ceased his publishing until he found legal assurance of what he could say. He continued with his spiritual journal the Galilean, which the U.S. Post Office, caught up in the wartime hysteria, eventually refused to deliver.
In April of 1942 Pelley was arrested for sedition. In August he was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment. When the abortive Mass Sedition Trial of 1944 gathered steam Pelley was indicted on practically identical charges. Pelley was not released from prison until February 14, 1950. As a condition of his parole he was not allowed to publish anything of an openly political nature.
Pelley's spiritual Liberation movement was now known as Soulcraft. The Soulcraft journal Valor began publishing almost as soon as he was freed and was joined in later years by Over Here. Both of these magazines show that Pelley was not bitter or broken by his adverse legal experiences.
Pelley stopped writing for publication in 1962 and spent the last three years of his life in what must have been quiet reflection. He died on June 30, 1965 and was buried in an unmarked grave, according to his wishes, in Crownland Cemetery, Noblesville, Indiana.
To the New York Herald Tribune:
Mr. Treister stated in his letter in your paper that the Jewish people form a very small percentage of the Communists in America. He states that "... in Chicago, with a Jewish population of 400,000, there are about 150 Communists."
I myself am Jewish, and I come from Chicago. I spent 13 years in that city. Approximately 98 percent of us are Communists, and we are not ashamed of it. It is a system laid down to us by our great leader, Karl Marx, and only the cowards hide behind "democracy" or "Americanism." Furthermore, I think Mr. Treister should check up on his figures more closely if he would give out information.
Sarah Finkelstein, Washington, DC, December 22, 1938